Take a quick flight over Peru’s Nazca (Nasca) Desert, and you’ll find yourself ogling an enormous, sprawling tapestry of ancient geoglyphs: a series of swirls, zigzags, and lines carved through sand and stone, some running many miles long. Perhaps most curious of all are the portraits of animals sprinkled among the geometric designs—creatures that range from commonplace to mythical, with little to explain their purpose or creation.
Now, new research may be pulling back the veil on these enigmatic etchings. In a study published yesterday in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of archaeologists reports the identification of four of the Nazca Lines’ 16 carvings of birds. Curiously, none of the four, which include a rainforest-dwelling hermit, a tropical parrot, and two coastal pelicans, are native to the arid landscape where their depictions are found.
Researchers may never know for sure what significance these foreign species had: Some of the Nazca Lines are thought to be up to 2,000 years old, and the pre-Incan peoples who likely forged this geographic Etch-A-Sketch are long gone. But identifying the winged members of this ancient menagerie could help researchers home in on what once inspired these painstakingly rendered formations—and better understand the artists who immortalized them centuries ago.
The new study isn’t the first to attempt to break the anonymity of the Nazca Lines’ birds, which appear to outnumber other animals in the glyphs. But before now, most researchers had based their designations on just a handful of traits, study author Masaki Eda, a zooarchaeologist at the Hokkaido University Museum in Japan, said in a statement. Instead, Eda and his team took an ornithological approach, analyzing the bills, necks, tails, wings, and feet of each bird and comparing their shapes and relative lengths to those of species known to frequent Peruvian skies.
Though several of the etchings bore at least a passing resemblance to a modern species, the researchers assigned names to just four. Two seem to be pelicans (in the Pelecanidae family), which are native to the Peruvian coasts; one is a probable hermit (in the Phaethornithinae subfamily), a type of tropical hummingbird found in northern and eastern Peru; and another appears to be a juvenile in the parrot family, like those that found in the country’s rainforests. Though none of these birds would have had much business pecking around a desert, the regions they’re found in were all likely Pre-Incan travel destinations.
It’s still unclear why the Nazca Lines were drawn, though purposes ranging from astronomical to agricultural have been proposed. No matter the impetus, researchers are confident that the design and execution of these extraordinary etchings were no small feats. Ancient Peruvians would have had to haul away layers of rocks and Earth to reveal the light-colored sands below. These birds—wherever they hailed from—must have signified something pretty special to warrant that much effort, Eda told Hannah Osborne at Newsweek.
Untangling that part of the puzzle will require more work. Already, Eda and his team are hard at work studying how the bird glyphs stack up against similar depictions in temples and on ceramics, reports Stephanie Pappas at Live Science.
There’s no telling what these new analyses will reveal. Until then, we’ll need to be satisfied with the little we do know of the Nazca Lines—still best appreciated, it seems, from a bird’s eye view.